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Biography of a district: Schools could benefit from more indirect funding

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Biography of a district: Schools could benefit from more indirect funding

Nov 29, 2023 | 8:01 am ET
By Jemma Stephenson
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Biography of a district: Schools could benefit from more indirect funding
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A young child reading a book. (Catherine McQueen/Getty Images)

Biography of a district

A look at Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District

November 27: The new 2nd Congressional District, running across the southern Black Belt from Mississippi to Georgia, has plenty of infrastructure needs.

November 28: Local education officials say that federal funding, particularly for special education programs, would be welcome.

November 29: The 2nd Congressional District has seen its share of hospital closures, and has more people without health insurance than the state average.

Mark Bazzell, superintendent of Pike County Schools, said that he wants his new congressional representative to have been a teacher, be married to a teacher or to come spend a day in one of his third grade classrooms.

“See what it’s like to be a third grade teacher,” he said.

Bazzell and other superintendents said whoever represents the district in January 2025 need to be aware of the need for funding in the district. 

The 2nd Congressional District, created by court order in October, runs from the Mississippi border through the southern Black Belt. It includes wealthy areas and struggling communities, and has a diversity of education systems with peculiar needs. 

In the two largest cities in the new congressional district, as well as the two districts whose superintendents spoke for this piece, more than half of the students are economically disadvantaged.

Montgomery County Public Schools has an overall score of 73 and an economically disadvantaged rate 63.64% on the state report card. Mobile County Public Schools has an overall score of 80 and an economically disadvantaged rate of 54.47%.

Pike County Schools has a score of 82 and 57.51% economically disadvantaged students. Crenshaw County also has a score of 82 and 50.54% economically disadvantaged students.

Superintendents in the new 2nd Congressional District are hoping that a new representative will establish strong relationships with the schools and help provide funding for the districts.

The Alabama Reflector reached out to superintendents throughout the district, many of which did not receive replies. Mobile Public Schools spokesperson Rena Phillips said the school district does not comment on political topics. Pike Road City Schools spokesperson Summer Rice said Superintendent Keith Lankford was not available until late in November. Questions were left with Montgomery Public Schools spokesperson Jade Jones for Superintendent Melvin Brown.

Bazzell said that the funding that they currently receive for upper-level classes goes towards the Advanced Placement courses. For their district, though, it makes more sense for the school to focus on dual enrollment courses.

“Our goal is to have about 30, 35% of our kids graduate, actually, with an associate degree prior to when they graduate from high school,” he said. “We’re graduating right now about, a little somewhere around 20%.”

Bazzell said they are currently using local revenues to fund dual enrollment because they do not have state or federal funding for it.

With freed up local funding, Bazzell said officials could address social and emotional learning in their classrooms. He said they would use funding to provide a board certified behavioral analyst and increase staffing.

“A lot of those kids need one-on-one,” he said.

Dodd Hawthorne, superintendent of Crenshaw County Schools, also has hopes for changes in federal funding.

“I think it would just be important for them to know what makes up Crenshaw County and I think talking about those things like special education are so critical, such a critical need for us,” he said.

As it stands, Hawthorne said, the district has to use state and local funds that would otherwise be allocated for other things to make up the difference between the needs and the federal funding they currently have. 

“I think to fully fund personnel to provide more specialists, particularly in behaviors, which is probably what we are seeing the largest increase and a need, especially with young kids,” he said. “I think that that would be the number one thing: it would be being able to fund personnel.”

Hawthorne said over email that the major infrastructure challenges his district is facing is a lack of internet access in the most rural areas. He said if federal funding could cover things like internet, then they could spend their local and state funding on interventionists.

What aid is available?

Wide view of a children's classroom at a school. Red, yellow and blue chairs arranged on the tables, white board and other school equipment.
Wide view of a children’s classroom at a school. Red, yellow and blue chairs arranged on the tables, white board and other school equipment. (Carbonero Stock via Getty Images)

But a congressional representative may not have to much to offer in the way of direct aid.

Peter Jones, an associate professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham with interests in education finance and policy, said that many of the ways that congressional representatives are able to help schools is indirectly.

“School districts rely so much on infrastructure and broadband, and being able to get school buses and the labor market, there’s just 1,000 other things that happened,” he said. “Their biggest impact is just bringing dollars to their congressional district and improving the lives of their constituents, which have then indirect effects on the ability to educate students.”

Jones said that control for items like special education comes through more indirect control. He said they can try to change how the federal government funds special education and get more grants. 

But he also said that a lot of special education funding come from the state. Jones said that most federal funding for education is based on formulas.

More federal funding for infrastructure would free up the state and local funds used on those to spend on items like special education. For instance, funding to address the blocking of rail crossings could reduce the time students spend on buses.

“The bipartisan infrastructure law that passed recently is probably going to be more consequential for local school districts than most recent things that I can think of,” he said.

He also said that the child tax credit reduced child poverty in greater numbers than they have ever seen.

Jones also said that one of the problems facing education is attracting and retaining teachers. Teachers might be more likely to stay in places where funding is provided for hospitals, especially if they want to have kids. He also said that public service loan forgiveness would benefit teachers.

“If you’ve got a vibrant community then students are happy, healthy, ready to learn, school districts are going to see those barriers are taken away,” he said.

Bazzell said that the pandemic brought many issues to the forefront of schools’ minds, and he wants a representative who will help provide funding for those issues, such as school safety, mental health initiatives and truancy intervention.

“We want them to come and see firsthand how those things [resources] are making a difference,” he said.

And in constructing a relationship with their next representative, Bazzell said, it’s important that the representative not just meet with him but the teachers in the school.

“We want somebody that will, that has a presence in the district that remembers us as folks in the districts on the ground working everyday to improve opportunities for kids,” he said.

This story was updated at 8:54 a.m. to clarify that Jones is employed at UAB.